"Are we there yet?" Malachy called out, twisting restlessly under the straps of his car seat. "Can we really grill our own meat?"
Finnian, his younger brother, was chirping more than talking, but he looked eager to get to dinner, too.
Their parents clearly had revved them up for the unique charms of Korean food. Their father is a bit of a barbecue geek and had spent some time describing the circular grills fitted into the center of Korea House tables that we would use to cook shredded beef, pork and sliced beef short ribs over charcoal. The adults were excited to sample an unfamiliar cuisine, and the kids were picking up on the ambient anticipation.
Korean food can be grandly exotic even for people who eat Vietnamese noodle bowls on a weekly basis and cook their own Thai dishes at home. There just aren't many opportunities to get acquainted with Korean cooking around New Orleans. A few Chinese restaurants maintain small sidelines in Korean dishes, and occasionally kimchee will make a guest appearance as a side item at upscale restaurants, but since Genghis Khan closed down a few years back, Korea House has been the only place in town dedicated to Korean cooking (though evidently not for long, see related item in Food News).
It shares some of the same appeals of Chinese and Japanese food and relies on familiar primary seasonings like red pepper, soy sauce, garlic, ginger, sesame and vinegar. But it all comes together into something quite distinctive. Even the presentation follows its own rhythm.
Most orders at Korea House are automatically preceded by a selection of four to six small bowls of banchan, a widely ranging array of fermented or pickled items of which the very spicy, cabbage-based kimchee is the best known. Others are more mellow, like slices of potato in vinegar, shredded radish in a cool mayonnaise-like dressing and spongy purses of fish cake that taste more like mushrooms than anything that once had gills. People pick at these throughout the meal or use them to garnish other dishes. If you want a first course beyond this, try the hae mul pa jun, which is a round egg cake the size of a small pizza and is filled out with whole strands of green onion and chopped pieces of shrimp, onion and mussels.
One recent improvement at Korea House is a partially illustrated menu, which is helpful for anyone who might otherwise read the word "casserole" and envision something made with egg noodles and a can of Campbell's soup. Korean casseroles here are much more like stews and can be eaten with a combination of chopsticks and spoons. The kimchee ji gei casserole was thick with cabbage, planks of tofu completely imbued with the red pepper essence of the broth and sheets of thin-pounded pork. Another "casserole" had a spicy broth as dense as a sauce and was filled with tofu and halved, in-shell crabs that were difficult to eat but worth the effort.
One indispensable mainstay is the dol sot bibimbob, a hearty rice dish with squiggles of beef and vegetables all topped with a raw egg. It is served in a searing-hot stone pot so that when you mix it up with your chopsticks the egg quickly cooks, binds the rice together and fries the grains at the bottom into a crunchy, toasty crust.
The tabletop barbecue has its own process, which begins when a kitchen hand comes by with a battered metal pail of glowing hot coals. A scoop from it goes into a stainless steel chamber in the table center, topped with a grilling surface that looks like a tricked-out hubcap. Out come platters of raw meat, which are placed on the grill to snap and crackle tantalizingly close. The waitress will come by periodically to tend the meat for you, but it's hard not to take the initiative yourself. The pork is the spiciest of the meats, but not overwhelmingly so, and the ribs have a dense, chewy, irresistible texture. All of it can be folded into fresh lettuce leaves with a pinch of rice and a slather of pungent soybean paste. Eventually, though, everyone ends up plucking bits of meat directly from the grill.
The dining room has a homey feel to it, with lots of brick, mirrors and clutter. There is a blacked-out sushi bar that hasn't served sushi for years and in a separate room there is a karaoke set-up available for private parties. This is a laidback, family-run restaurant where, on some nights, you can hear Korean being spoken at just about every table. Prices are always a bit hard to figure by the time a group gets done ordering dishes to share, but I always manage to stuff myself, wash it down with a few beers, pay less than $30 and come away feeling like I had the better end of the deal.
On the night we brought the preschoolers, they eschewed the more intense choices and had a dinner of white rice, a few of the blander banchans and beef carefully pruned of any garlic or pepper bits. But as we drove home, everyone agreed the meal had been an adventure, complete with special effects from a bibimbob that continued cooking at the table, the mesmerizing presence of a grill just a chopstick-length away, the endless shuffle of so many banchan dishes and the roll-your-own lettuce wraps. We had, after all, just spent an hour playing with our food.